Pritzker’s Nearly $45B Capital Plan Is Way Better for Transportation Than Expected

Photo: Carlton Holls
Photo: Carlton Holls

When Illinois governor J.B. released his massive infrastructure and transportation spending bill on May 17, some astute observers like transit analyst Yonah Freemark argued the proposal would be a “a disaster from the perspective of social equity and the environment” because it earmarked about seven times as much money for roads and bridges as transit. The plan also failed to set aside any money for walking and biking, even though the Active Transportation Alliance had been advocating for $50 million a year for bike and pedestrian infrastructure.

But the bill that passed this weekend, which includes a $33 billion, six-year transportation capital program, turned out to be much better for sustainable transportation than many advocates had anticipated. The capital plan was part of a major legislative coup by the governor that also included legalizing recreational pot, passing an abortion-rights bill, finalizing a $40 billion balanced state budget, and getting an initiative on the 2020 ballot to let voters decide whether the state constitution should be amended to allow for a graduated state income tax.

Active Trans noted in a statement that the final legislation that passed actually includes several major wins for walking, biking, and transit, including the $50 million annual bike/walk fund that they had been pushing for. Their lobbying efforts included getting hundreds of supporters to contact their legislators over the weekend.

The bike and pedestrian funds will be awarded through a competitive grant process under the existing Illinois Transportation Enhancement Program, which is currently bankrolled solely through federal money. Active Trans estimates that the new state funding, which would double the size of the ITEP program, could pay for 125 new projects a year, including safety infrastructure like pedestrian islands and better crosswalks, as well as protected bike lanes and multi-use trails.

The bill also includes longterm, sustainable funding for public transportation, with transit receiving $4.7 billion over the first six years and $281 million for each year afterwards. That represents 23 percent of the total transportation spending, or about twice as much as was indicated in the initial proposal. However Active Trans noted that transit still should have gotten a bigger slice of the pie — they had called for 40 percent, in light of the poor current state of Chicagoland transit infrastructure, and the many safety, health, mobility, and economic benefits public transportation offers for the city and the state.

The revenue will come from a variety of sources, including a number of new fees for drivers, including doubling the state gas tax, which has been stuck at a flat 19 cents a gallon for two decades, to 38 cents, and indexing it for inflation so that the revenue doesn’t lose buying power in the future. The bill also includes fee and tax hikes for vehicle registration, particularly for electric vehicles; and a new state tax on parking garage use. These are sensible ways to to raise money and/or reduce vehicle miles traveled, since car-based travel has many societal costs.

Despite the higher-than-expected spending for sustainable transportation, Yonah Freemark, a former Chicagoan now living in Boston, wasn’t particularly impressed by the capital bill. “There’s no long term vision embedded in the plan,” he tweeted today. “There’s no serious thought about how state will commit to addressing climate change, or shifting people to transit. It’s just… more money.”

As such, Freemark called the capital bill a missed opportunity for change. “One thing that’s always been remarkable about Chicago in my view is that despite all the big talk about big plans, the region is decidedly conservative when it comes to future planning.”

However, other advocates, experts, and local transit agencies expressed more of a glass-half-full (or glass-fully-full) perspective on the passage of the bill.

Audrey Wennink, Metropolitan Planning Council

“A major achievement of this legislation is that it provides sustainable transportation funding, and the gas tax is indexed to inflation for increased resiliency,” Wennink said. “This will provide predictability and the ability for our transportation agencies to plan better.” She also pointed to the $50 million annual bike/walk fund as a win.

Steven Schlickman, former head of UIC’s Urban Transportation Center

“It is very amazing that with bipartisan support Governor Pritzker was able to double the gasoline tax,” Schlickman said. “That used to be a political third rail idea that was anathema to many legislators. I hope Trump and Congress will follow Illinois’ lead [by raising the federal gas tax.]”

Midwest High Speed Rail Association

The group lauded the inclusion of the following items in the bill:

  • New service to Rockford
  • New service to Moline
  • Track improvements for Chicago – Champaign – Carbondale
  • Track improvements in Springfield
  • Expanded Metra service into Kendall County
  • Funding for the CREATE program to relieve freight rail congestion

Regional Transportation Authority

“We are very pleased to see that the Illinois state legislature and Governor Pritzker understand the importance of capital funding for transit and transportation in our state,” the RTA said in a statement. “We are heartened to see that, in addition to the $2.7 billion allocated for transit capital funding through bonding, there is also annual, sustainable revenue, or  ‘pay as you go’ funding allocated for public transportation capital funding. This is the type of  long-term, stable capital funding that public transportation needs and riders deserve to address our longterm capital need of $30 billion over the next decade.”

Chicago Transportation Authority

“We are extremely happy to have a state capital bill for the first time in a decade—one that provides the  stability and certainty the CTA needs,” said spokesman Brian Steele. “Having this sustainable, stable funding in place ensures that CTA will be able to continue its important efforts to modernize and improve our vehicles, stations and facilities.”

Metra

“We are particularly happy that the funding includes an annual, stable and sustainable allotment of capital funding as well as a significant additional amount from a bond program,” said the commuter rail agency in a statement. “This funding will help us begin to tackle our biggest capital priorities, including locomotives, railcars, stations and bridges.”

Pace

“This will be the largest one-time capital infusion in Pace’s history and allows us to maintain the robust system we currently operate and lay the foundation for future growth,” said executive director Rocky Donahue in a statement. “Projects such as the I-55 Express Bus Garage; ADA Communications Technology Upgrade; River Division Expansion; and a new northwest region garage in Wheeling will now become reality thanks to our legislators. We’re excited to get to work.”

  • Kevin M

    To Yonah’s point about this capital bill having no serious thought about “shifting people to transit”: I agree to some level with him, but the higher fees and taxes on car ownership and gasoline could lead to some level of mode-shift. Is more necessary? Absolutely. But how do you sell rural and suburban elected leaders that the future isn’t written for their car-dependent way of life?

    I’m pleased with the passenger rail expansion (and interested in further details), but I have not heard much in detail about what Metra (besides the Kendall county expansion) or CTA (besides the Cottage Grove station rehab) are getting from this bill.

  • Zotus

    “the future isn’t written for their car-dependent way of life”. Really? Consider mass transit is only effective in large urban centers which in Illinois only constitute about 10%, at most, of the states area. Not everybody can or wants to live in an urban center and urban centers are dependent on the agricultural rural communities, who are and will always be car dependent, without which urbanites would starve.

  • Jeremy

    10% of the state’s area, with 75% of the state’s population.

  • Jacob Wilson

    Considering how much subsidy agriculture gets it’s really hardly a drop in the bucket to make you pay another few cents a gallon when you fill up. Actual farmers are a tiny minority. People lived for 10’s of thousands of years before cars.

  • ardecila

    Metra already spelled out what they’re hoping to do with the money, their top priorities are fleet replacement and A-2 interlocking.

    Not sure what CTA will do with the money, the RPM project is funded through a TIF so hopefully this money can go to other pressing needs like fixing the crumbling Forest Park Branch. Maybe even some bus lanes if Lightfoot is willing to play ball like she promised on the campaign trail.

    I’m also hopeful there is some money here to invest in fixing the dank cave that is Union Station.

  • 1976boy

    Farmers will sell their products to anyone who will pay for them. They are dependent on their customers, the cities, without whom they would starve.

    Your attempts to project some weird kind of elitism against cities is weak.

  • Carter O’Brien

    You realize most of what we grow in Illinois isn’t even used to feed people, right? We import over 90% of our food, so your argument may need some refinement.

    https://www2.illinois.gov/sites/agr/Consumers/FarmersMarkets/Documents/Local%20Food%20Systems%20Presentation%20January%202011.pdf

  • Alltra

    According to Illinois Census Data:

    http://www.ides.illinois.gov/LMI/Pages/Commuting_Patterns.aspx

    Only 9 Pct of Illinois commuters use transit to get to work (Total Illinois Commuters 5,645,154, Total Commuters Using Mass Transit 517,304, Total Percentage Of Commuters Using Mass Transit = 9.16 Pct)

  • Carter O’Brien

    Sounds like an argument for better transit.

  • Altra

    Or a confirmation that transit usage In Chicagoland has an upper limit, so long as alternatives (ride share, telecommuting) are better options

  • Jeremy

    You think more people telecommute than ride transit?

  • Altra

    No — but for those who can choose between working at home or taking the CTA , telecommuting is often the more attractive option:

    https://www.govtech.com/fs/transportation/How-Will-the-Growing-Popularity-of-Telecommuting-Impact-Public-Transit.html

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Of course the folks who commute to jobs in downtown Chicago disproportionately fuel the engine of the Illinois economy. And if we can commutes to downtown or suburban workplaces more pleasant by having a first-class regional transit system, that will attract more companies to Chicagoland, further boosting the state economy.

  • Carter O’Brien

    I was actually referring to better transit across the state… Rural areas are one thing, but plenty of people drive to/from Chicago from the suburbs that could be taking the train – for that matter plenty of Chicagoans drive downtown who could be as well!

  • Jeremy

    Again, your numbers are national, so you are including areas where there isn’t a lot of public transportation and telecommuting represents a viable alternative. How are restaurant or museum workers downtown supposed to telecommute?

  • Guy Ross

    The amount of local labor necessary to support those inputs to land management for agricultural purposes is plummeting and reaching a point of basically zero. Now if the remaining people who choose to live on a big lot in the suburbs or at the farthest distance to the next human being wasn’t so massively subsidized for this luxury, we wouldn’t need to have city dwellers begging for scraps to fund their highly efficient transportation systems.

  • Guy Ross

    ‘Upper limit’ when alternatives are robbed of funding to pay for the daily car commute. Totally agree.

  • Altra

    Transit Ridership has fallen in 31 of the 35 Major US Metropolitan areas in the last few years. The only cities that saw increased ridership are cities where the population is increasing dramatically, relative to other cities (Seattle, Phoenix and Houston):

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/trafficandcommuting/falling-transit-ridership-poses-an-emergency-for-cities-experts-fear/2018/03/20/ffb67c28-2865-11e8-874b-d517e912f125_story.html

    Not much reason to think that Chicago, which has lost more population than any other metropolitan area (https://www.chicagotribune.com/data/ct-met-viz-chicago-metro-population-change-how-it-compares-04182019-htmlstory.html), will somehow avoid that trend and boost its transit ridership.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Well, two big reasons are 1) Climate Change and global warming and 2) Lake Michigan and the world’s largest reservoir of freshwater.

  • Mark Henschel

    Gas tax should be per liter, it’s time to get rid of the gallon. Also hope construction projects use SI units. Ninety six percent of planet uses SI, time to finish US metrication

  • Altra

    Climate change will save Chicago??

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Chicago’s falling ridership is largely due to competition from artificially cheap, under-regulated ride-hailing, which is generating more traffic congestion and slowing down buses. Unreliable Metra service due to aging infrastructure is another reason some Chicagoland residents are riding transit less often.

    Better transit infrastructure funding will help address those problems — in addition to upgrades to the Metra and CTA rail systems, it can be used for projects to speed up buses, like bus lanes, prepaid boarding hardware, bus rapid transit stations, etc.

    Lori Lightfoot has said she plans to take steps to improve bus speeds, and she has also proposed new fees on downtown and single-occupant ride-hailing trips, which should help with congestion and encourage more transit trips. So I’m optimistic that we can reverse the falling ridership trend if we’re proactive about improving transit service and leveling the playing field with ride-hailing.

  • Charlotte Frei

    I wish I could up vote this 1,000,000 times

  • david vartanoff

    How are those metric 2x4s doing when you repair your buildings? Do you really like having to re-tap new threads in older but still serviceable objects when you need to replace a lost screw? I don’t care how you measure things as long as I can continue to buy backward compatible replacement parts for the huge installed base which exists.

  • dan_2000

    So, how long have you been an idiot troll? Do you know anything about construction or do you just like to prove your ignorance. A 2 x 4 is just a trade name, the actual size of that piece of lumber is 40 x 90 mm. Measure it and you will see the truth.

    You automobile has been metric for decades, so you can easily buy metric fasteners for car repair, the same for many home products made to metric specifications kept secret from the public.

  • matt mcclure

    Improved and expanded public transit will be key to keeping Illinois’ competitive advantage for business. The Kennedy, Eisenhower, and Edens Expressways are overwhelmed. There are only so many people who will or can bike or walk to work. There needs to be better transit within the city and between the city and suburbs. Using parts of the former C&NW Navy Pier line, Mayor Daley’s idea of a streetcar to Navy Pier that commuters and tourists can use needs to be a reality. This should also spur up along Clark Street like the streetcar of old. On Goose Island and environs, absolutely use the moribund right-of-way to develop streetcar transit and get people off choked North Avenue. Instead of tunneling all the way to O’Hare foolishly, tunnel straight west and connect to the exist CN line that parallels the Eisenhower Expressway. There are no rail or road crossings for miles and trains could travel in the valley at 150 MPH most of the way to a new, dedicated station at O’Hare either linked to the light rail on land that was previously rental car space. The idea of the STAR line running between Waukegan and Aurora on the former EJ&E is a brilliant concept and long overdue. Here Metra trains could be single-or-double car MUs to keep costs down. Even with only rush-hour service, but connecting seven Metra lines, this has brilliance written all over it. These alone would be amazing for improving Chicago and the suburbs’ competitive advantage.

  • smartphone1

    Mark we didn’t come from another country like you, we are happy with our system. I notice 90% of your posts have to do with the metric system, WE DON’T CARE what YOU want. If you don’t like the system go to Mexico and enjoy to corruption.

  • smartphone1

    I’m glad the electric car people will pay their fare share now.

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